Over the past few years, the Fresh Expressions U.S. training team has begun to notice a significant trend: a significant number of people feel stuck when they’re trying to move from the space of building community with others to beginning to explore Jesus together. Some have said with exasperation, “I feel stuck. I want to see people I’m building relationships with don’t know Christ move to a point where I invite them to explore Jesus, but I don’t know how to move forward. How in the world do I get unstuck?”
It’s as though there is an invisible force field keeping us from moving from building community to exploring discipleship. More attempts to start fresh expressions of church stall or fall apart in this particular space than during any other part of the process.
Why is this? Many of us genuinely don’t know what to do. We need guidance and training in this pioneering work, something the team is working to provide. And second, I believe the Evil One would love for well-intentioned followers of Christ, seeking to pioneer new and creative initiatives in order for people to come to know Jesus, to become discouraged, stuck, and disillusioned. Satan would love nothing more than to see kingdom pioneers remain stuck in this crucial space, lose hope, and throw in the towel.
Here are seven practices for how you can move from hanging out to helping people connect with Jesus.
Practice #1: Engage in appropriate humor
“Laughter,” as Anne Lamott writes, “is carbonated holiness.” We’ve got to lighten up and be willing to poke fun at ourselves from time to time. The goal isn’t to make fun of ourselves as Christians, but utilizing wit and humor helps grease the gears, acknowledging that Christians haven’t always gotten things right. When I beat people to the punch with my humor, I acknowledge an awareness that sometimes Christians can come across as weird. It breaks the ice a bit and, in a counter-intuitive way, builds trust and credibility.
When I invited a couple with no church experience to attend our weekend gathering, they agreed and asked what they should wear. I was tempted to give the standard response: “We’re pretty casual. Wear whatever you want, whatever makes you feel comfortable.” But instead, I decided to take a different approach. With a serious look on my face, I responded, “Well, we have a strict dress code policy to which everyone must adhere.” Their eyes got big, and they inched forward. I continued, “Everyone is required to wear clothes. We don’t take naked people seriously at our church. Do not come without clothes.” They hesitated, looked askance, and then we all burst into laughter. They showed up on Sunday.
If you can get people to move from laughing at Christians to laughing with them, that’s a pretty good start. I try to put people at ease and build trust and credibility by not taking myself, our church, or Christians too seriously. I am seeking to express enough awareness that talking about spiritual matters makes many people extremely uncomfortable. If I beat people to the punch regarding some of their reservations, it can lower their anxiety level and begin to soften their hearts. Our humor can be a conversation starter.
Practice #2: Invite people to explore discipleship in groups
Have you ever noticed how seldom Jesus hardly discipled people one-on-one? Jesus engaged in spiritual conversations with Nicodemus (John 3) and with the woman at the well (John 4), but Jesus discipled primarily in groups. Most of the time, Jesus discipled all twelve of his traveling companions together. I’ve found that when the topic of discussion is faith-related, it can feel safer for individuals if they are in a group setting. Several years ago, I invited a twentysomething to a group discussion where we were exploring Jesus together with others who were not followers of Jesus. After a few months of building a context of trust, he opened up and admitted to me that if I had invited just him to the conversation, he never would have agreed; meeting one-on-one, he told me, would have made him think I was the leader of a cult. Because it was a group setting, though, it put him at ease. It wasn’t going to have the feel of, as he called it, “a religious timeshare pitch.” One-on-one discipleship isn’t bad or wrong, but groups can be more conducive for those who are leery or skeptical of anything religious.
Practice #3: Throw purposeful parties
One of the most strategic and fruitful ways to live in the midst of the overlap of the building community and exploring Jesus spaces is to throw parties with purpose. Hosting parties can cultivate fun, connection, celebration, engagement, and a meaningful shared experience. Many of Jesus’ kingdom parables were about parties. Jesus had a knack for showing up at the best parties. Some have referred to these kinds of spaces as Matthew parties, taken from the story found in Luke 5. Jesus called a Jewish tax collector (who was understood to be a traitor who worked for the Roman government and was compensated sufficiently) to follow him. Levi, who was also called Matthew, in turn hosted a party at his house which included other ill-reputed tax collectors, religious experts, and Jesus’ own disciples on the guest list (Luke 5:27–32). You could hardly have found a more diverse group of people in all of Palestine to attend the same party. Jesus loved parties, and he saw the potential of this kind of party: his mission of love colliding with a diverse crowd. Levi’s life was changed because of it.
Several years ago, I encountered a group of kingdom-minded party hosts who meet with the intention of seeing God show up in the midst of meaningful connection. They realized that many of their friends were wine connoisseurs who were also curious about the Bible and hungry to have their spiritual questions answered. They gave it the curiously peculiar name Bible Tasting & Wine Readings. They created a safe environment for social connection to occur over a shared interest while also giving purpose to the gathering.
Practice #4: Speak with creativity to cultivate curiosity
Think about words used frequently by Christians: Church. Bible. Prayer. Discipleship. The gospel. Worship. These are good words, important words, but could there be creative, compelling, contextual ways to communicate the same thing? Instead of church, could we say a Jesus community? Could we describe prayer as talking with Jesus about the things we’re going to do together? Or how about discipleship as following the Way of Jesus? Or how about describing baptism as a sacred pool party? The goal of thinking about language differently isn’t an attempt to be manipulative, deceptive, or cute. It is neither an attempt to ignore nor to discard traditional words. The goal instead is to help us read our contexts in order to best love and serve others in a particular place and to describe our wonderfully gracious God and his loving mission of redemption in colorful, clear, creative, compelling, and curiosity-inducing ways.
Consider participating in this exercise: write down on a whiteboard, flip chart, or piece of paper all the potentially overused insider Christian language—words, phrases, and euphemisms—you can think of. Once you’ve identified which phrases are unhelpful and shouldn’t be used regularly, make a commitment to refrain from using them when you are together. While there may be creative ways to speak of common concepts about God and his mission, we should work hard to avoid insider phrases altogether when in settings where people are exploring who Jesus is.
Practice #5: Grow to ask incisive questions
The gospels record that Jesus asked over 300 questions. He was a masterful question-asker. It’s important we work hard to grow to ask better questions. Here are a few suggestions:
- When you think of a great question – or hear someone else ask a great one – write it down and save it for later.
- Reflect on great questions others have asked you. Ask yourself why those questions were so important to you.
- Skip the generic and bland questions (How are you?, What’s up?, How’s your day?) and replace them with better ones (If you could describe how you are feeling in two words today, what would those words be?, What are you looking forward to the most this week? or What part of your day gave you the most joy—or gave you pause—or both?)
- Ask questions about people’s passions.
- When meeting with someone you don’t know well, ask them to tell you their story.
Practice #6: Offering prayer to others
Thomas Rusert, a Lutheran pastor, decided to offer free prayer in a Starbucks in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He created a simple sign made from card stock that said, “Free Prayer” with a quote from Martin Luther: “Pray and let God worry.” Thomas would set up his sign, sip his coffee, and see what the Spirit might be up to. He showed up consistently each week over a period of time, and people eventually began to wander over to talk and ask for prayer. All this cost Thomas was a cup of coffee, a piece of card stock, and some purposefully invested time.
When you naturally offer prayer for others, my sense is that you might be surprised at how few people will actually turn you down. But if they do, don’t take it as personal rejection. Always keep the offer for prayer open. When people decline, you can smile and say, “No problem. If you change your mind or something comes up, just let me know. I’d be glad to pray at any time in the future.” Don’t be surprised if people circle back around months later and say they’d like to take you up on your offer.
Practice #7: Cultivate a deep and ongoing dependence on prayer
Offering prayer is one thing; believing prayer is central to faithfully embodying Christ’s mission is quite another. If we are to take prayer seriously in the overlapped life, there are three specific areas where we can aim our blowtorch.
First, pray that the fear and acceptance of others would not be an idol in your life. Oftentimes our fear of other people’s opinions can be the dominating driver of why we refuse to take risks to invite people to a deeper level of engagement.
Second, pray for people of peace. In Luke 10:1–7, Jesus offers his missionary strategy. We can pray into that strategy.
And third, pray for wisdom, courage, and compassion. As leaders, we need all three elements. Wisdom and courage without compassion are careless. Wisdom and compassion without courage are riskless. Courage and compassion without wisdom can be reckless. But if we can lead with wisdom, courage, and compassion it’s priceless.
This article is adapted from J.R. Briggs’ newly released book The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully in the Space Between. Receive a special FX discount here in our Fresh Expressions store. When you order through Fresh Expressions, you’ll receive an email with a link to a FREE group discussion guide and FREE chapter videos as bonus material. Consider it our way of saying ‘thank you for purchasing through us!’
J.R. Briggs is a National Trainer & Equipper for Fresh Expressions U.S. He is also the Founder of Kairos Partnerships, a ministry that seeks to love the Church by caring for Her leaders. His role with Kairos Partnerships is expressed through coaching, consulting, speaking, equipping and writing serving a wide variety of leaders, pastors, churches, non-profits, ministries, companies and denominations. He is affiliate faculty member in practical theology at Missio Seminary and guest instructor at Friends University in the Masters of Arts in Spiritual Formation program. He has guest lectured, taught and spoken at over a dozen colleges, universities, and seminaries around the U.S. He also serves as the Director of Leadership & Congregational Formation for The Ecclesia Network. He is an author, co-author and contributor of ten books that seek to equip and care for kingdom leaders. J.R. and his wife Megan have been married for over 15 years and have two sons, Carter and Bennett. They live in the heart of Lansdale, PA.